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Responsibility for global warming is in our hands

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A Virginian Pilot Editorial

Earlier this month, 13 federal agencies released an exhaustive assessment of the country’s climate, concluding that Americans are now living in the “warmest period in the history of modern civilization.”
The Climate Science Special Report, produced as part of the Fourth National Climate Assessment and released as a stand-alone assessment, found that “global annually averaged surface air temperature has increased by about 1.8°F (1.0°C) over the last 115 years (1901–2016).”
That may appear to be small — the difference between 78.2 degrees on a spring day and 80 degrees later that afternoon, for instance, seems insignificant — but, in scientific terms, an increase of that sort is enormous.
The warming of the Earth, particularly if it accelerates, will raise sea levels dramatically, with catastrophic consequences for coastal communities such as Hampton Roads.
The report finds:
— Global average sea level has risen by about 7 to 8 inches since 1900, with almost half (about 3 inches) of that rise occurring since 1993.
— Global average sea levels are expected to continue to rise by at least several inches in the next 15 years and by 1 to 4 feet by 2100. A rise of as much as 8 feet by 2100 cannot be ruled out.
And this, which hits close to home:
— Sea level rise will be higher than the global average on the East and Gulf Coasts of the United States.
Perhaps most striking about this report aren’t the conclusions, though they are particularly dire. They echo much of the climate science already available to the public, though the extrapolated effects listed here are deeply alarming.
Rather, it’s that the scientists who authored this report were clear to blame human behavior for a slowly warming Earth — and did so with the apparent approval of the Trump administration, even as the White House takes great pains to belittle that conclusion.
That begs the question: If President Donald Trump and those who now lead federal regulatory agencies believe that rising global temperatures that imperil coastal communities are the fault of mankind, what does Washington intend to do about it?
Consider the following nightmarish scenario.
By 2050, average temperatures in the United States rise by 2.5°F, a change that’s accompanied by more frequent heat waves. Warmer temperatures mean a later freeze, an earlier thaw and a reduced snowpack in northern states.
Some areas will see more frequent and intense rainfalls while others will endure prolonged drought. But the real chaos will be on the coast, where warmer seas and melting ice caps make for rising seas that exceed all previous projections.
In Hampton Roads, Miami, New Orleans and even cities such as New York, the effects are inescapable — and it may be that constructing measures to curb recurrent flooding will be insufficient to protect lives and property.
These are all conclusions in the Climate Science Special Report, backed by scientific study and meticulous research. The effects are caused by more greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide and methane, in the atmosphere, the effects of which may not be completely reversible anymore.
The best hope — the only hope — is to take action now. And while President Trump was willing to sign off on this report, he appears comfortable ignoring the implications of inaction — despite the likelihood of disaster and widespread misery.
Ay, there’s the rub.
The president has shown in his first year that he holds in contempt the type of policies that offer the best hope of curbing global warming and protecting the environment.
That began prior to his election, when he tweeted that climate change was a Chinese hoax, and continued promptly after his inauguration, when he began appointing to top environmental jobs individuals hostile to regulatory standards.
Trump signed an executive order to begin unwinding President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a regulatory effort to lower greenhouse emissions. And the president announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, which pledged the country to meet global emission standards.
That decision effectively ceded influence on the issue of climate change to China, which is aggressively pursuing clean energy goals. And while formally withdrawing from the non-binding international agreement takes four years, if completed it would make the United States the only developed nation to opt out of the Paris protocol.
Trump’s bureaucrats have worked feverishly to loosen regulations on businesses, halt enforcement of standards protecting air and water from pollution, and in some instances looked to strike references to global warming and climate change from federal reports.
That record makes the Climate Science Special Report quite an outlier from this administration, especially given the very clear and unvarnished insight it offers into the country’s future in a climate that grows ever warmer.
Given Washington’s abdication of this responsibility, it’s little wonder that Gov. Terry McAuliffe — in an effort to protect Hampton Roads residents while also burnishing his legacy — has spent much of the year advancing a Virginia plan to fight global warming.
In May, he signed an executive order directing the Department of Environmental Quality to draft rules that would regulate carbon emissions from power plants in Virginia. That followed the recommendations of a study group tasked with exploring how the commonwealth can be a leader on greenhouse-gas reduction and clean-energy development.
Earlier this month, Virginia became the first southeast state to adopt a carbon cap-and-trade program that, according to The Washington Post, would see the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board “cap emissions from most power plants starting in 2020 and then require a 30 percent reduction over a decade.”
Gov.-elect Ralph Northam pledged on the campaign trail to continue McAuliffe’s aggressive approach to environmental protection and global warming. The rules from the VDEQ are expected next month and are likely to be implemented under the Northam administration in the coming year.
It’s not enough, of course. Virginia cannot go it alone when it comes to improving global conditions.
But principled stands — by McAuliffe, by Northam, by Virginia — may encourage other states to follow suit. They may even put pressure on the Trump White House to follow the words of federal scientists with the type of regulatory action needed to make a profound difference in the trajectory of the nation’s climate.
The report, as it stands, paints a cataclysmic picture and, per approval by his administration, has Trump’s implicit agreement. To ignore these conclusions now represents malfeasance of the highest order, and would condemn the United States to an environmental tailspin from which it will never recover.